Fact and Fiction in The Godfather
"Wet My Beak"
The Godfather, Part 2 presents two separate plot lines: the maturation of Michael Corleone as boss of the Corleone crime family and the rise of young Vito Corleone, Michael's father. At the start of the 20th century, local Mafiosi in Sicily murder young Vito's family, making him an orphan. Fearing that the little boy will grow up to seek revenge for these murders, the local boss orders Vito's murder. Friends smuggle Vito out of Sicily and put him on a ship bound for America. Traveling alone and unable to speak English, the youngster must make his way in the land of opportunity by himself.
In his 20s Vito marries and starts a family back in New York. Played by actor Robert DeNiro, Vito Corleone is hard-working and loyal to his friends, even the ones who aren't as upstanding as he is. Having been victimized by the Mafia in Sicily, he's particularly incensed when he sees the injustices committed by Don Fanucci, the pompous neighborhood boss who demands protection money from every businessman in Vito's Lower East Side Italian community. One of Vito's friends shudders in Don Fanucci's presence and mutters that the man is part of the Black Hand.
At the turn of the 20th century in America, Italian immigrant extortionists used the mysterious name, the Black Hand, to scare their targets into paying their demands, lest they incur the wrath of some vast underground society. In fact, these Black Handers were freelancers with no affiliation to any criminal organization. Nevertheless, the innocent Italian immigrants they targeted believed that a Black Hand organization existed and knew very well that these extortionists generally followed through on their threats when they didn't get what they wanted. It wasn't uncommon for a child to be kidnapped and a severed finger delivered back to the parents to convince them to pay the ransom. In 1905 a Brooklyn butcher was gunned down in his shop for ignoring an extortionist's demand for $1,000. The famous opera tenor Enrico Caruso paid a demand for $2,000 when he received a threatening letter signed with a black-ink palm print.
The most notorious Bland Hander was Ignazio Saietta, better known as Lupo the Wolf, who terrorized the Italian section of Harlem. He maintained what the police later called the "Murder Stable" on East 107th Street, a slaughter house for his underworld enemies and extortion targets who refused to pay. As Carl Sifakis writes in The Mafia Encyclopedia, "Lupo paraded his Black Hand activities openly to the Italian community, thus reinforcing the perception that he was untouchable by the law. It was common for many Italians to cross themselves at the mere mention of his name." The residents of Vito Corleone's neighborhood in The Godfather, Part II treat Don Fanucci in much the same way.
But the fictional Don Fanucci differs from the Black Handers in some significant ways. Black Hand extortionists worked in the shadows and rarely showed their faces unless they absolutely had to. Better to let their victims imagine vast gangs of homicidal monsters. Also, as portrayed in the film, Don Fanucci has no underlings to back him up. He simply demands tribute, and people pay up in fear. His constant refrain is that he only wants to "wet his beak," a euphemism for wanting a cut of the profits. He seems too public a figure to be a Black Hander. In this respect he seems closer to a neighborhood padrone.
When the Italians started to immigrate to America, they, like other ethnic groups, stayed together, clustering in their own neighborhoods. But unlike other immigrant groups, they were very reluctant to assimilate. They resisted learning English and mainly dealt with one another. But there were times when they had to deal with the outside world, and for that they sought the help of the neighborhood padrone, a fellow immigrant who had learned English and acted as go-between for his fellow Italians. When a person's water and electric bills had to be paid, the padrone would take care of it for a fee. If someone had trouble with the law, the padrone would act as interpreter and sometimes as de facto attorney again for a fee. In the early years of the Italian immigration when few Italians could speak English, the services of the padrone were essential, and many immigrants came to believe that certain tasks could not be accomplished without a padronean impression that the padrone did nothing to correct. Exacting fees for these services constituted a form of extortion all its own, although much subtler than an ink-stained death-threat letter. As created by Puzo and Coppola, Don Fanucci is his immaculate white three-piece suit is a hybrid character Lupo the Wolf in a padrone's clothing.